Two local crabbers face criminal charges after allegedly poaching crab in the protected Cape Falcon Marine Reserve using gear stolen from fellow crabbers.
Scott Edward Giles, 39, most recently of Ilwaco, and deckhand Travis Richard Westerlund, 34, of Astoria, face multiple criminal charges, including theft, criminal mischief, unlawful take and fishing in a prohibited area, following an indictment in August.
Given the amount of stolen gear found in his possession, Giles, the captain of the commercial fishing vessel The Baranof, faces felony theft charges.
A researcher with Oregon State University and a commercial fisherman hired to take her around the reserve discovered a string of 19 pots hidden there in April 2019. The pots were marked with a variety of paint colors, leading investigators to conclude they had been stolen from other fishermen. The pots were later tracked back to seven different commercial crabbers between Astoria and Newport.
More pots were discovered by chance the next month when a fisherman happened to run over a line attached to two strings of crab pots.
Investigators with the Oregon State Police’s fish and wildlife division marked the legal-sized crab they found inside these pots and lowered the gear back in place. Then trooper Jim O’Connor waited at a local processing plant to see if anyone delivered the crab.
The marked crab showed up on the processing line several hours later, delivered by The Baranof. Investigators served several search warrants over the following months before arresting Giles and Westerlund this summer. Both men have since been released as the case works its way through Circuit Court.
Cristen Don, Oregon’s marine reserves program leader, said staff have found fishing gear in Oregon’s protected reserves before. Some of it has clearly drifted in by accident; some appeared to be set on purpose. They have never seen something quite like this case.
“Nothing has compared,” she said, adding, “This was just so unusual and egregious. Compliance has been very high by most commercial and sport fishermen overall.”
There are ecological and habitat concerns when fishing gear enters a reserve, but poaching “also has the effect of screwing up the research if now things are being taken out of the reserve,” Don said.
“The idea is these areas are supposed to be ‘no take, no harvest,’ so we can study how an area that’s not altered by fishing or extractive activities compares to areas that remain open to fishing or have some kind of ocean development going on.”
Among the crab pots Giles and Westerlund allegedly stole were eight pots belonging to commercial crabber Tim Kindred.
Kindred, of Astoria, runs 800 pots between his two boats. Losing gear occasionally is a part of fishing. Until O’Connor contacted him, Kindred figured nothing more unusual had happened to the missing pots.
“One here and there, you don’t notice them,” Kindred said.
When he learned the pots had been stolen and the suspects were commercial fishermen, including Giles, who he had considered a friend, it shook him. It is not something that should happen in the fishery, he said.
“We are trying to stay afloat and to have people steal from us — I have kids to feed just like him,” Kindred said.
It is not uncommon for fishermen to take note of each other’s gear if they find it drifting, he said. They might set it aright and then let the owner know.
“It’s a friend thing,” Kindred said. “You look out for each other. You don’t run other people’s gear.”
The Cape Falcon Marine Reserve, located offshore from Oswald West State Park in northern Tillamook County, was established in 2016 with harvest restrictions beginning the same year.
The reserve includes rocky intertidal habitats, patches of rock and a soft, sandy bottom. It is home to a variety of marine life, including crab and groundfish. The area had previously seen regular commercial crabbing activity and some fishing for groundfish.
When researcher Sarah Henkel and fisherman Bob Browning discovered the stolen crab pots last year, the two were in the reserve to retrieve hydrophones that help track the movement of Dungeness crab in the area.
The stolen gear was placed well inside the reserve, near the rocky reef area, Henkel said.
Once she and Browning found the small, fist-sized floating bait bag that marked the line of pots and pulled up one crab pot and then another, “we knew we were dealing with a poacher,” she said.
“Long lining … is itself illegal,” she added. “With such a small surface float, this was clearly someone who didn’t want their pots detected.”
The West Coast commercial Dungeness crab fishery has faced numerous challenges in recent years, from unfavorable ocean conditions that resulted in blooms of toxic algae and delayed the start of fishing to the coronavirus pandemic that shut down exports to the Chinese market.
“What I have seen is we’ve had some years where it turns out to be a good year, but it’s not a good year for all,” said John Corbin, who previously served on the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission and has two boats based out of Warrenton that fish in the commercial crab fishery.
When the fishery opens in the middle of bad weather — a more likely occurrence if the fishery opens later in the winter — bigger boats might be able to weather the storms, but smaller boats may be stuck at the docks.
But, Corbin noted, that kind of uncertainty and chance has always been a part of the fishery. Overall, Dungeness crab remains a lucrative fishery and commercial boats land an average of 17 million pounds in Oregon each year, according to state records. The Washington coast crab harvest has been running around 12 million pounds in recent years. It’s not uncommon for crab boats based inside the Columbia River estuary to operate in the waters of both states.
No matter the challenges of the fishery, Kindred sees no reason to fish in the reserve and no way for a commercial fisherman to be confused about where the boundary of the 12-square-mile protected area begins. In his opinion, it comes down to greed.
Though crabbers are not allowed to fish in the reserve, they are still able to fish near it. They may set pots right at the boundaries to try to get any crab that venture out.
“It doesn’t surprise me that someone would, say, well, ‘I’ll just jump across the line,’” Corbin said. “I can’t imagine the risk being worth it myself, but evidently somebody can.”